As a parent of a child with autism, your role becomes mother, father, child development expert, therapist, advocate, and teacher all wrapped up in one. This constant feeling of having to be “on” for your child across all environments is exhausting.
It can be hard to balance making time to engage in relaxing family activities (that don’t feel like they have an agenda) with making time for meaningful learning exercises (that don’t feel inordinately difficult).
In this post, we will discuss how to embed practice opportunities for one such skill that can be difficult for children with autism to learn – reading – within the home environment. By embedding these opportunities so that they naturally occur, interacting with novel material becomes social, fun, and easy.
Create a Literacy Rich Environment
In addition to stocking up on a variety of children’s books, you can create a rich literacy environment in your home and community in other ways as well. For example, let photographs and art hung on the walls serve as vehicles for conversing around imagery and practicing visual sequencing (“it is raining in this picture, so the woman has an umbrella to keep her dry”).
Visit your local library or bookstore, either for a playgroup or structured story time activity, or simply to browse books or play in the children’s area. These activities help to build a foundation for your child with autism where reading their environment as well as reading text becomes an intrinsically motivating experience.
Find Practice Opportunities in Daily Life
Engineers do all of the proverbial heavy lifting at the outset, before anything is actually built, by design. This way they don’t have to think about it later; everything they have included in their blueprint becomes automatic during construction and ongoing building usage.
Similarly, as a parent you can frontload literacy to begin with, making it easy to practice with your child with autism during ongoing daily living activities.
For example, purchasing magnetic letters for your fridge, foam letters for your bathtub, alphabet puzzles for the playroom, and alphabet board books for your child’s bookshelf increases ongoing opportunities to practice phonemic awareness (sounds associated with each letter), blending (“C-A-M spells Cam! That’s Mac backwards!”), and other early decoding skills such as rhyming and vowel vs. consonant awareness.
Listen to Audio Books
Consider audiobooks as a way to embed literacy on the go or while doing other things at home, like playing with Legos or making dinner. Audiobooks can be an enriching experience even when you and your child are just listening rather than trying to follow along with the speaker word-by-word in a printed book.
Audio books also help create an early foundation for comprehension skills by exposing your child to narrative patterns across a variety of unique examples.
Let Literacy be Fun
You may be reading this and thinking “this all sounds wonderful, but my child just doesn’t like to read.” Children with autism may have a harder time accessing motivation and reinforcement within books than others, and this can start as early as during the first and second year.
They may not seek out books, or decline to finish a book being read to them. They may fixate on one particular book about a favorite subject, and insist on reading that book and only that book over and over every night at bedtime.
The important thing to keep in mind with early literacy is that it should be child-directed. By honoring your child’s requests and opinions about books early on, you will teach them that their actions matter.
The child with autism whose parent allows them to naturally close a book on page 3 rather than getting into a power struggle over making it to the end of the story may be much more likely to initiate reading all the way to page 5 or beyond on the next day.
It is OK to follow your child’s lead when it comes to literacy and reading, even if that results in unconventional outcomes. By freeing yourself and your child from excessively prescriptive ideas about what reading “should” look like, you create room to explore the wide world of literacy as it links directly to your lives, and establish a foundation for more complex reading skills to emerge later on.
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.